Saxophonist John Doheny was born in Seattle Washington in 1953 but has spent much of his adult life in Canada, primarily in Vancouver and Toronto. After early experiences accompanying strippers in bars and cabarets he became a professional R&B sideman in the late 1970s, touring and recording with artists both prominent and obscure. In 1991 he returned to Vancouver and began a program of intense musical study, both in academe (Vancouver Community College, the University of British Columbia) and in the more informal area of performance. He asserts that "all human intercourse is either an opportunity to learn or to teach. Everything that I know about jazz performance (to the extent that I know anything at all) I owe to those players, teachers and students who have suffered to share the bandstand and the teaching studio with me." Since 2003, Mr. Doheny has been a permanent resident of New Orleans, Louisiana, but makes every effort to spend summers in Canada because "it's too damn hot down here then."

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Spanish Tinge Redux

I've held forth here previously about the Latin American influences in New Orleans culture. Jelly Roll Morton's assertion that without "tinges of Spanish" in the music, one will never achieve "the right seasoning, I call it, for jazz" is one that has been unpacked by a scholar or two (most adroitly, in my opinion, by Lawrence Gushee). To musicians, these influences are readily apparent. If one interprets Morton's use of the term "Spanish" to mean "Afro-Cuban" (and again Gushee and others, myself among them, argue strongly that this is the case) then New Orleans music, from early jazz to R&B to Funk to Hip Hop, is littered with the phraseology and rhythmic organizing principles associated with 'Latin' music. Some of the most spirited between-sets discussions I've had with other musicians on gigs have been about the similarities between 'second line' grooves and Afro-Cuban clave figures. Drummers in particular like to hold forth on this subject; I remember a particularly spirited discussion with Julian Garcia in front of Sweet Lorraine's club, where the leader had to practically drag us back inside for the second set.

This stuff gets short shrift in the tourist brochures, where it's all about the French. The French Quarter, the French influence on cuisine and dance, the rapidly disappearing French speaking population (even though that population is 'rapidly disappearing' from rural Acadia; French as a spoken language has been gone from the city of New Orleans since the beginning of the 20th century, and in any case the two populations are quite dissimilar. Rural 'Cajun' French is a product of Acadiana. Urban New Orleans French came from France and St. Domingue). But the Spanish period of New Orleans' history (roughly 1762 to the Louisiana Purchase of 1803) is of tremendous importance culturally.

I bring this up because I'm in the process of teaching (in a TIDES course at Tulane) a new book by Ned Sublette called "The World That Made New Orleans." Sublette, a writer of great depth who nonetheless manages to have broad popular appeal, draws some rather nifty connections between the complex layering of cultures that made the city, then and now, such a unique place. His central thesis is that these layerings were all in place by the time the Americans took the helm. He's quick to point out the seminal role the Spanish Period played in the musical development of the city:

Brief though it was, the Spanish period in New Orleans was crucial to the creation of Afro-Louisianan culture, and constitutes a singular moment in African American history. During the years when the Spanish governor of Louisiana reported to the Spanish captain general of Cuba, the rules in New Orleans regarding slaves were much like those in Havana. There was a large population of free people of color. Slaves were treated badly, but enslaved people had some liberties-most important, they had the right to purchase their freedom. That was more than black New Orleanians had before, and more than enslaved people in the United States would have.

In Cuba, where such a regime lasted through the entire experience of slavery, there is every indication that this greater degree of freedom within slavery was good for music. The big city of Havana...took music in from all over, including Louisiana, but radiated it out even more powefully. As New Orleans grew, it would do the same, inhaling and exhaling music, up through the days of jazz, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, and the town's latter day lingua franca, funk.

The phrase 'melting pot' is not really appropriate for this process, as it implies a sameness of result. Amalgam works a bit better; I personally like 'layering' of culture. Louisiana had basically three colonial eras in quick succession; French, Spanish, and Anglo-American, and each of these eras had it's own slave regime, with new laws and customs, allowing black New Orleans to develop in a different way with each successive political paradigm. In addition, all three regimes were in the habit of importing slaves directly from certain specific regions of Africa. These "fresh off the boat" Africans arrived in successive waves, Bambara, Bakongo etc. and created their own cosmopolitan layering effect within the larger Creolized culture of the city. The result of these processes is immediately apparent in the city today. It is utterly unlike anywhere else in the United States. My favorite descriptive of the city (I've forgotten where I first heard this) is that it is "a cross between Port Au Prince, Haiti and Patterson, New Jersey."

Sublette, again:

On sabath evening," wrote a visitor to New Orleans in 1819, " the African slaves meet on the green, by the swamp, and rock the city with their Congo dances."

Most of the United States was quiet on Sunday. In many parts of the rural, mostly Protestant nation, dancing was frowned on. But the mostly French-speaking, mostly Catholic, black-majority port city of New Orleans, proudly unassimilated into the English-speaking country that had annexed it, was rocking.

Jump forward 128 years to Roy Brown's "Good Rockin' Tonight." If I had to name the first rock and roll record, I would first say that there is no such thing, then I would pick "Good Rockin' Tonight." It was recorded at Cosimo Matassa's rudimentary studio on the edge of New Orlean's French Quarter: a microphone and a disc cutter, in the back room of a record store at Rampart and Dumaine.

Cosimo's place was catty-cornered from the legendary "green by the swamp," known in the old days as 'Place Congo,' or Congo Square.

The distance between rocking the city in 1819 and "Good Rockin' Tonight" in 1947 was about a block.

Preach it, brother.

Comments on "The Spanish Tinge Redux"


Blogger Brian Barker said ... (7:14 AM) : 

I think the World needs a lingua franca as well.

An interesting video can be seen at http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8837438938991452670

Failing that http://www.lernu might help


Blogger John Doheny said ... (11:57 AM) : 

I'm actually expanding this article into a much larger piece right now. Not sure if I'll make it into a book, but who knows.


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